Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Engaging Seniors in Heritage Projects - notes from Heritage NL's Intangible Cultural Heritage office

The current COVID-19 crisis is difficult for seniors on many fronts.  In addition to creating serious health risks, it has further isolated many.  Heritage NL has been working with seniors for a number of years to capture their stories and offer validation of their lives and experiences.  While engaging seniors in a time of social isolation is challenging, telephone conversations and video interviews can serve as a useful way to connect.

As a guiding principle, Newfoundland and Labrador’s provincial Intangible Cultural Heritage strategy recognises that incorporating multiple voices, including those of seniors, is important in all work relating to ICH. ICH is kept alive and is relevant to a culture when it is regularly practised and learned within communities and between generations. In many instances, elders in our communities are the bearers of many of our traditions and customs and have an important role in setting priorities for community-based research and being valuable information sources for documenting traditional knowledge. We strive to celebrate the voices of seniors by keeping them involved in the various levels and types of work we do and by documenting their knowledge in the process.

In 2016, Heritage NL launched its Collective Memories Project - an initiative which invites seniors to record their stories and memories for archiving and sharing. It was established as a joint project of Heritage NL, the Provincial Advisory Council on Aging and Seniors, the Interdepartmental Working Group on Aging and Seniors, and the Department of Seniors Wellness and Social Development.  

The Collective Memories Project is an umbrella for a number of initiatives designed to create venues for community members to come together to share ideas, experiences, memories, and traditional knowledge. One of our tools is the “Memory Mug Up” program, initially developed by Dr. Martha McDonald at the Labrador Institute. As she describes it, “A mug-up is a snack that people have when they're in the woods,” and the idea behind the Memory Mug Up is easy to apply anywhere.

“One thing we wanted to do was community outreach,” McDonald says, “and so we thought it would be a good idea to just go visit people in their communities and talk to them about days gone by, a very simple idea.” The goal is to help participants share and preserve their stories: a personal story, a story about a family member, or a story about the community as a whole.

Often, the Memory Mug Up is the start of a longer conversation. Community storytelling sessions help identify tradition bearers and knowledge keepers. We record their names, and follow up with one-on-one oral history interviews. All of these are archived in partnership with a local university. Then, we develop online content, short digital storytelling videos, or community history booklets from some of these collected stories.  An important part of keeping stories alive is to make sure that collected materials get back out to the community, and ensuring people’s memories don’t languish on a shelf in an archive. One of the first booklets in our Collective Memories Series featured the experience of five City of St. John’s volunteers and their reflections and advice on volunteering in the community.

Stories of our elders are an important part of understanding our historic places.  The Historic Places Initiative defined heritage value as: “the aesthetic, historic, scientific, cultural, social or spiritual importance or significance for past, present or future generations.”  All of these are related to our collective memories, and the knowledge of those who came before us.  You can’t save historic places without also collecting the stories associated with them, so Heritage NL assists to make existing oral history collections more accessible to the general public, and can help communities start up new oral history projects to interview local seniors. 

Over the course of several years, we’ve come to realize that these projects benefit more than just us as a heritage organization.  Event organizers in particular stressed how beneficial the project was for the seniors of their community, and for community pride. Several people noted the importance of capturing seniors’ stories. A recurring theme was a call to continue to make sure seniors are involved in safeguarding their heritage.

Heritage projects that involve seniors in all parts of the process validate and recognize the contributions of seniors to our communities. They reduce isolation of seniors at risk, and support mental and emotional health and well-being. They also can support mentorship of younger people by their elders through intergenerational exchange.

For more information on how Heritage NL engages seniors in heritage work, email folklorist Dale Jarvis at To see publications resulting from this work go to:

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